Turing, Welchman and Bletchley Park

In the past year I read several books about the events that took place at  Bletchley Park during World War II. It all started when the movie “Imitation Game” came out and the biography of Alan Turing was republished. I had read Turing’s biography back in the 80s, but I was happy to read it again, especially since an electronic version was available. The book is  called “Alan Turing: The Enigma” and it  was written by a British mathematician Andrew Hodges.

Broadly, Alan Turing’s life can be divided into three phases: his life before the war, his work on the Enigma at Bletchley Park during the war, and his work on computers in the late 40s and 50s. His major achievement of the first part of his life was the 1936 publication of a paper titled: “On Computable Numbers, With An Application To The Entschedeidungsproblem.  The paper presented the idea of an abstract machine (now we call these Turing Machines) that could  mechanically  solve any problem for which an algorithm  could be devised. Essentially this paper invented and described in detail a programmable computer, as we know them today. The paper went further, also showing that there are some problems with are “not computable” – that is impossible to  solve with a programmed machine.

Alan Turing was on his way to an academic career when World War II broke out. He was recruited to help in breaking the German communication that has been encrypted with the Enigma machine. The center for all this work was Bletchley Park, and this is where Alan Turing spent his war years. The initial breakthrough of deciphering the Enigma was accomplished by Polish mathematicians before the war. Turing and the Bletchley Park cryptographers continued on this work, eventually creating an industrial size organization that would break the daily keys of large number of a German communication networks.  Turing in particular worked on breaking the Naval Enigma, including designing number of machines that were used to speed up the computations needed to find the daily keys.

In October of last year I got a chance to visit Bletchley Park, which is now a museum, and while browsing though the museum book store I found a book about Gordon Welchman. The book was “Gordon Welchman: Bletchley Park’s Architect of Ultra Intelligence“, by Joel Greenberg. Welchman was a contemporary of Turing, and he arrived at Bletchley around the same time as Turing and like Turing worked on breaking of the Enigma.

When he first arrived at Bletchley, Gordon Welchman pioneered the discipline of traffic analysis. That is learning as much as possible from the way messages were transmitted in various German networks, without actually decrypting the contents. One thing that made this possible was that each Enigma message had a header, transmitted in the clear, that contain destination and source addresses (these were of course coded indicators that changed everyday). Still surprising amount can be deduced from this information.

Welchman was also the one to organize how the intercepts were obtained and how they were handled once at Bletchley. In particular he set up and managed the work of Hut 6, which mostly dealt with analyzing and breaking the German Army and Air Force traffic.

Unlike Turing, after the war Welchman immigrated to the U.S. where he worked on development of computers and communications networks. He became a US citizen, obtained a security clearance and worked at MITRE on government projects.

Now, when World War II ended the British and the American governments decided to keep what was done at Bletchley secret. Only in the 1980s some of what went on at Bletchley has started to become public. Some of this material was in fact used by Turing’s biographer in his book.

Gordon Welchman was close to retirement by then, and seeing how Bletchley secrets were slowly being revealed he decided to write a book about his experiences. The book is call “The Hut Six Story” and it describes a lot of technical details of how Enigma traffic was broken.  Once Welchman announced his plans to publish “The Hut Six Story”, over 40 years after the war, both the British and American Secret services tried to stop it. Eventually the book was published in the early 90s, but as a result Gordon Welchman lost his security clearance and was no longer able to work in the Defense Industry.

The most interesting parts in “The Hut Six Story” are the description of some of the methods used to break the daily Enigma keys. Many of these methods depended on finding a “crib” – that is guessing correctly what a part of a message may be – and then testing different key settings to eliminate the ones that are not possible. The presence of cribs in the Enigma messages were mostly due to sloppiness of the German Enigma operators. For example, sending a daily message with same text (like: “nothing to report”).

These three books gave me a very in depth look at what happened at Bletchley Park in World War II, and I f you are interested in this topic consider reading them.



Top Ten CDs from 2015

This is the list of the best CD of 2015, according to me. These days I mostly listen to jazz and I have big preference for jazz guitar and for organ trios (that’s a group with guitar, Hammond B3 organ and drums) and in general I prefer small groups as opposed to large bands.

The list below is mostly in random order, except for the first entry – which for me was the best CD of the year.

  • “Messin’ With Mister T.”  (Dave Stryker)  I have followed guitarist Dave Stryker for over ten years, and he seems to be getting better every year.  This CD is a tribute to tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, in whose band Dave Stryker played for over 10 years.  In addition to his regular organ trio Dave has invited premier saxophonists of today to play on this record. The list includes Eric Alexander, Chris Potter and Jimmy Heath.  It’s hard to pick my favorite cuts from this record – at the moment I would choose “Impressions” and “Gibraltar”.  In my opinion this is the best jazz CDs to come out this year.
  • “Family” (Steve Johns)  Steve Johns is a drummer and on this record he leads a band consisting of his son on bass and his wife on tenor and soprano saxes. In addition he has two special guests playing guitar: Bob DeVoe and Dave Stryker.  I listened to this CD a lot, and even attended the CD release gig at the Kitano in NYC.
  • “Blue” (Vic Juris) – This trio (guitar, bass, drums) record was first released in September, but I only found out about it in December. I was driving in my car when the song “Lonely Woman” came on and it was beatiful! “Lonely Woman” is a tune written by Horace Silver, and made famous by Ornette Coleman. Vic’s version is actually very close in arrangement to the original recording by Horace Silver, he is showing his chops by playing piano lines and chords on a guitar. A beautiful record.
  • “The Real Thing” (Eric Alexander)  Great CD form tenor man Eric Alexander. I’m familiar with Eric’s work because I have seen him perform on Tuesdays with Mike LeDonne quartet. This record has an additional treat for me – guitarist Pat Martino is a guest on several tracks.
  • “Say When” (Steve Davis) Steve Davis is trombonist I like.  Among other bands he plays in a group called One For All, which also includes Eric Alexander and Jimmy Rotondi. I was lucky to meet Steve Davis at the Jamey Aebersold summer jazz camp in Louisville.  This record is hard swinging main stream jazz album, with some unusual takes on standards  “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “What Is This Thing Called Love”.
  • “Afro Blue” (Harold Mabern) Harold Mabern is a pianist who has been on the jazz scene for a long time (for example he played with Wes Mongomery). This record is collaboration between Harold Mabern a stable of some of the best jazz singers and musicians on the scene today. This includes singers such as Nora Jones, Jane Monheit and Kurt Elling, horn players Eric Alexander,  Jeremy Pelt and Steve Turre and guitarist Peter Bernstein appears.  In fact to promote this record Harold Mabern appeared at Google. Check out that performance here.
  • “AwwlRight” (Mike LeDonne) Mike LeDonne is an organist who leads a “Goover Quarter” at Smoke nearly every Tuesday evening. Typically this group includes Eric Alexander on tenor and  Peter Bernstein, a favorite of mine, on guitar. This CD is a sampling of what this group does. I dare you to listen to this CD and not tap your foot!
  • “Catch and Release” (Nick Hempton) I confess, I bought this CD because Peter Bernstein was one of the musicians. Turned out Peter was only on one cut, yet the rest of the CD is actually great. Nick Hempton is saxophonist whose compositions comprise this record.  All the songs were recorded at Smalls jazz club in NYC. The title “Catch and Release” refers to the unusual way this CD was put together. Each cut was recorded, mixed and then released on the Internet, and only then the musicians returned to Smalls to record another. Eventually there were enough tunes to make a whole record.
  • “Search for Peace” (Heads of State) Another gem from Smoke Session Records. Four veteran musicians, whose names I have often heard on the radio but wasn’t very familiar with, came together and made this record.
  • “All I Know” (Rachel Caswell) Rachel Caswell is a vocalist from Loiusville (I think). This is an unusual record in that the only accompaniment consists of guitar or bass – that is all the songs are performed with voice and guitar or voice and bass. There are couple of reasons I like this record. First Rachel has a lovely voice that is pleasant to listen to, second I like music that is minimally arranged and having just one instrument plus voice is very effective, finally the guitar player is Dave Stryker and I love the way his style of playing mixes with the singing.

> Science Fiction Readings: Fall 2015

Here are two SF books I read since the summer.

  • Aurora (Kim Stanley Robison) – Long time ago, when I was just a teenager, I read a big fat book about a generational ship travelling through space. I do not remember the name or the author of the book, but do remember liking it. So when I asked some friends about generational ship stories, they recommended  Aurora.  The book tells a story of a generational ship that is near the end of its 120 year journey to a planet near a star that’s 8 light years from Earth. The author goes into some details of how such a ship could survive in the void of space. Everything needs to be recycled since proper balance of chemical elements in the biospheres is essential, as there is not place to replenish the supplies.  When the ship arrives at its destination, the selected planet turns out to be less than ideal, and after serious political upheaval the people of the ship split in two faction: one stays and one decides to go back to Earth. The story is told from the the point of view of Freya, the daughter of the ship’s chief engineer, who then becomes the leader of the people on the return trip.  I liked reading the book,  even the slow parts where the author spent time explaining various scientific details.
  • World of Ptavvs (Larry Niven)  – This is an odd little book, in which an alien, who crashed on Earth millenias ago and survived in a stasis field, is revived. He tries to gain mind control over all humans to turn them into slaves. The “muguffin” is mind amplifier that was left on Neptune, or was it Pluto. It was a quick read.

> Readings in History: 2015

I have been reading a lot history books lately. Here is a list of some of the books I read this year:

  • Practicing History: Selected Essays (by Barbara Tuchman)  – Barbara Tuchman is one of my favorite historians to read. This book is a collection of essays, selected by the author, on many topics from how she goes about writing to examples of essays she wrote about Japan, the Middle East and the United States. I greatly enjoyed reading this book.
  • The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War (1890 – 1914)  (by Barbara Tuchman)  – another gem by Barbara Tuchman.  In this book she describes the state of the world leading up to the First World War. It was time a great progressive change, yet full of unrest and tribulations. The book is divide into chapters that concentrate on one country or one significant event. For example,  a chapter covers how the Dreyfus Affair  divided the French and another how music in Germany pushed the European culture into the modern age.  At times it is amazing to see the similarities between that time and today.  For instance, the era had its share of “anarchists” who wanted to provoke the masses to rise against the bourgeoisie by blowing people up or assassinating political figures. The book is long, but fascinating.
  • The Wright Brothers (by David McCullough)  – this was new biography of the brothers, published this year.  I have read several other biographies of the Wright brothers, and this one filled in more details, especially about the early demonstration of the Wright Flyer in France and the USA. I never tire of reading about the invention of the airplane.
  • The Heart of Everything That Is (by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin) – this book tells the story of Sioux Chief Red Cloud and his war against the United States. Red Cloud has the distinction of being the only American Indian Chief that won a war agaisnt the US government.
  • The Forgotten Few: The Polish Air Force in the Second World War (by Adam Zamoyski) – I thought I had read all the books about the Polish pilots in WW II. Somehow I missed this one.  This book  covered some details of the after-the-war politics in the UK that I did not know before.

> Science Fiction Readings: Spring and Summer of 2015

I’ve read quite bit of science fiction this spring and summer, but i have not kept a careful record, so here are the highlights:

  • The Shockwave Rider (by John Brunner) – this is a classic from the beginning of the cyber-punk genre. It’s an early book where something like the internet plays a big role in the plot. The author predicts many things that are true today, for example at one point he describes the world wide network where “…confidential information had been rendered accessible to total strangers capable of adding two and two…”. The hero of this story reminded me a little of Edward Snowden, however in the book the act of publishing secrets results in great social change, not at all like what happened in the actual world.
  • Flow My Tears The Policeman Said (by Philip K. Dick) – I read this book in the past and this time I understood little better what went on. Still PKD’s books are quite a ride, because – as my daughter described it – the author pulls the rug from under the reader, then the floor, and then the ground.  The title of the book is taken from an beautiful  17th century song called “Flow My Tears“.
  • The Martian (by Andy Weir) – this is a story by a space geek about an astronaut who is left behind, when a NASA mission to Mars has to be aborted after landing. The book was great fun to read and now there is a movie!
  • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame – Volume Two A (edited by Ben Bova) – this is a collection of longer pieces by various authors. Here are the names of the stories I read:
    • “Universe” (by Robert Heinlein)  – early generation ship story.
    • “The Marching Morons” (by C.M. Kornbluth) – person from the past turns to be much smarter than people who revived him. See the movie “Idiocracy“.
    • Vintage Season” (H. Kuttner and C.L. Moore) – time tourism.
    • The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” (Cordwainer Smith) – mild class warfare.
    • Baby Is Three” (Theodore Sturgeon) – spooky story with some paranormal twists.
  • Quicksilver (by Neal Stephenson) – this was the second time I attempted to read this book. I think I got in little further, but just got bogged down. The main problem for me was that there were to many characters introduced, yet nothing much seemed to happen. So again I gave up. I’d rather read actual history.

>Science Fiction: “The Invincible”

“The Invincible” is one of the early novels by Stanislaw Lem. The first edition came out in 1964. Recently a new translation has been published as an e-book and that’s the version I have read (I have read other editions in the past, including the Polish edition).

The book is fascinating story of a spaceship, “The Invincible”, on a rescue mission to find a sister ship, “The Condor”, which disappeared on an uninhabited planet sometime before.  As the plot progresses we find that some kind of strange mechanical evolution took place on the planet in question, creating some incomprehensible “life” forms.

What I find amazing about Lem is his imagination to come up not just with plot ideas but also with the setting for his story. I often wish that I could see a movie or just photographs of the places he describes. One day, on a whim, I searched for images from “The Invincible” and discovered that such pictures actually exist.

Here is a whole gallery of paintings of scenes from “The Invincible”. Seeing these scenes from the book  made the reading of the book again a lot more more enjoyable.